For America's No. 5 Pizza Chain, Moms Are the Secret Sauce

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For almost every pizza chain in America, Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest sales day of the year. But not Papa Murphy's. Its No. 1 day: Halloween.

Why? For one thing, the business model behind Papa Murphy's is completely different from the 'bro-centric' system of delivery pizza at Domino's or Papa John's. While those chains bank on the promise of ready-to-eat pizza at your doorstep, Papa Murphy's pies are never baked – in fact, its stores don’t have ovens or freezers. Instead, customers come in and pick up a fresh pie to be baked at home.

The setup can be confusing for new customers as the franchise expands east across the country; the chain currently has more than 1,400 locations in 38 states, most west of the Mississippi. CEO Ken Calwell says that once, at a new store, a customer glanced down at his pizza while leaving, then turned around and asked if employees had forgotten to bake his pie. 

While the concept takes getting used to, it is uniquely appreciated by one very strong and loyal subset of customers: moms.

"Pizza Hut, Papa John's, Domino's and Little Caesars all focus on… young males, because young males eat a lot of pizza, or a lot of delivery pizza," says Calwell. "We're the largest pizza chain that focuses on families or moms."

Related: How These Parents Went From Sleepless Nights to Pitching a Million-Dollar Business on 'Shark Tank'

While Papa Murphy's is the fifth-largest pizza chain in the U.S., it is by far the largest take-and-bake chain, as the nearest competitor Figaro's Pizza has 20 times fewer restaurants. Instead, Calwell says the primary competition for the chain includes upscale frozen pizza, or moms who will visit the grocery store to buy ingredients to make pizza from scratch.

Papa Murphy's has its roots in two take-and-bake chains: Papa Aldo's Pizza, founded in 1981, and Murphy's Pizza, founded in 1984. The two were brought together under the name Papa Murphy's by owner Terry Collins in 1995. Earlier this year, the company went public in a $64 million IPO.

The take-and-bake chain combines both the convenience of takeout or delivery with getting "credit" for cooking at home, says Calwell. For some mothers, the ability to quickly put a pizza in the oven at home can be even more convenient than delivery, as it allows them to avoid unknown factors in delivery time. Plus, making pizza at home feels more nutritious, in part because Papa Murphy's is able to invest the money it saves on labor and equipment on higher quality ingredients.

Fortunately for Papa Murphy's, mothers are one of the most loyal markets a company can hope for. Consumer Reports and Nation's Restaurant News Consumer Picks Survey both rank Papa Murphy's as the top pizza restaurant chain in the U.S., thanks in large part to the dedicated family market.

"Young males are not loyal. So young male typically will love you today, and then when the next pizza place say they can charge nine bucks for that versus 10, they'll go for that," says Calwell. "Moms are hard to get, but moms are really loyal."

Related: Why the Founder of Papa John's Doesn’t Believe in Managing Employees

Which brings us back to Halloween. Why is Oct. 31 Papa Murphy's biggest day of the year? It's all thanks to mothers.

"Kids are going to be out eating candy all night, they're going to be low blood sugar, so moms say, 'I have no time tonight,'" says Calwell. "She brings one of those pizzas home, she's ready to cook it, they eat, [and] they go trick or treating. It's a huge day for us."

The chain also boosts sales on Halloween with a jack-o-lantern shaped pizza and, new this year, orange "spooky dough" chocolate chip cookie dough. 

The second-biggest sales day for Papa Murphy's is another shocker: Valentine's Day. According to Calwell, parents' date nights tend to evolve post-kids, and having a convenient dinner ready can be a huge help.

As Papa Murphy's expands, the company is keeping moms top of mind in its new plans. The franchise plans to open 105 new stores this year alone. The chain is also looking to beef up its non-pizza options, like salad, dessert and cinnamon rolls, adding a new cheesy bread to the menu earlier this month. Papa Murphy's may even add new main courses in the coming years.

"Mom, when she comes to Papa Murphy's, she's not just looking for pizza, she's looking for a meal," says Calwell. "We don't want to dive into the deep end of the pool, but we want to look at what would be the next most frequent occasion you would come to a store." 

Related: Cats Run the Show at the Most Adorable Pizza Hut in Japan

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